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Photos by Joan Marcus, Arizona Theater & Sarah Shahinian

Tucson-born Ben Crawford trained for the leading role in "Shrek the Musical" for 11 months before finally getting the chance to step into the spotlight. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Valley Youth Theatre alumni Nick Cartel stars in the 2012 Broadway revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Jamison Lingle is an actress currently playing in Arizona Theater's presentation of Jane Austen's "Emma," which runs at the Herberger Theater through January 20.

"When you get to the big moment, it's just you alone on a big stage," says actress and director Sarah Shahinian.

Published by Times Publications, Jan. 2013

Most nights, when Ben Crawford was on call as the standby for Shrek in the hit Broadway show “Shrek the Musical,” he wouldn’t have to get the full makeup.

“They’d start with an initial makeup, that took them maybe a few seconds to put on,” says the 30-year-old actor, a Tucson-born University of Arizona theater arts grad whose first big break on Broadway found him working as the standby for lead Brian d’Arcy James, shadowing America’s favorite swamp-dwelling ogre. “And then they would gradually fill it in throughout the show that night just in case it got to a situation where I had to go on. Which it never did.”

On the occasions Crawford was called to substitute for the Tony Award nominee on stage, he’d usually have at least a night’s notice of the star’s absence to come in early for the full makeup job, which could take several hours along with costuming.

But there was one night Crawford had to go full Shrek and never made it to the stage.

“Brian was not feeling well this night, and it became apparent that I might have to go on for him in the middle of the show,” he recalls. “So they started applying the full makeup during the show and kept on doing it until nearly the end, when it turned out Brian was going to make it through the show after all.”

As a standby, Crawford says, you never wish harm on the principal you’re backing up. (“It’s not like ‘Showgirls,’ where you’re pushing the lead dancer down the stairs!”) But the actor admits it can be disappointing on those nights when you’re all geared up to go onstage, in the role you’ve rehearsed for months, and the opportunity never arrives.
On this particular night, Crawford says he hung out with the crew after the show for a bit then sulked off, tired and depressed, into a New York subway station for the long ride home.

“It had been a longer night than usual, and so I’m tired, riding home on the subway, and I’m just kind of in my own world. And at one point I scratch my nose, and I notice that I have this gooey green glue on it. And suddenly I look up and see everybody on the subway is staring at me—still in my full Shrek makeup, flicking green goo on the floor!”

Crawford laughs. “I was so out of it, I didn’t even care at that point,” he says. “It had been a long day.”

Life in the wings

They are the unsung heroes of professional theater. The understudies, standbys and “swings” who stand quietly in the background, prepared to take over a role at a moment’s notice if any of the stars can’t go on.

“For every star you see in these multimillion-dollar shows on Broadway, there is somebody sitting backstage who has their back, just in case anything goes wrong,” says Stephanie Riggs, a New York filmmaker whose new documentary, “The Standbys,” follows the lives of three Broadway second-stringers, including Crawford, whose days are spent waiting in the shadows for their one moment in the spotlight—a moment that, more often than not, may never arrive.

Riggs, a former theater director herself, became intrigued with telling the stories of these under-appreciated performers after attending a New York concert series put on entirely by understudies, swings and standbys. She learned the difference between the types: understudies and swings typically perform onstage regularly in smaller roles, but are prepared to take over for a lead—or, in a swing’s case, any character in the cast—if needed. Standbys, on the other hand, spend their nights waiting backstage and are only called to perform when a lead can’t go on.

But Riggs was also impressed by the “tremendous talent, tenacity and fearlessness” these backup performers exhibited, and found, in their aspirations, a more universal story of life in the wings that reached beyond the theater world.

“The film uses Broadway as a backdrop—it’s glamorous, it’s beautiful, there are song and dance numbers,” she says. “But this is also the story of the backup that exists in every industry. The person in the cubicle who looks at the boss and says, ‘I could do that job, if I only had the chance.’ It’s also a story of people following their dreams without recognition, and asking themselves, ‘Is it enough to be doing what I love doing, even if I never get that recognition?’”

For some, like one of the actors profiled in Riggs’ film, 51-year-old Merwin Foard, a “professional understudy” who recently served as Nathan Lane’s standby in the musical adaptation of “The Addams Family,” it can be. While always the standby, never the star, Foard has nonetheless been able to support his wife and two kids for 31 years as a professional theater actor. Still, he harbors the dream. “I would hope to grow out of being ‘the back-up guy,’” he says in Riggs’ film. “So that people who might have known me when, could say ‘I remember when he was the standby.’”

Riggs says there is a contingent of groupies on the Great White Way devoted especially to standbys. “There’s this group of people who love finding the up-and-coming understudies and standbys on Broadway,” she says. “They love being the first to discover who the next star might be.”

But such cultish devotion pales next to bonafide star worship. Toward the end of “The Standbys,” Riggs’ third subject in the documentary, Aléna Watters, fresh from being summarily fired from a lucrative gig as a swing for the backup singers in a Bette Midler revue, decides she will no longer accept a job as a standby.

“In the film, [Broadway leading man] Cheyenne Jackson, who paid his dues as an understudy, says, ‘Nobody wants to be the understudy forever. But it’s a difficult choice. You have to finally get to the point where you say, “You know what? I’m not going to be the standby anymore.”’ And until you draw that line, that is how casting directors will see you,” says Riggs.

“But I think there comes a point, in a lot of actors’ lives, where they see they have to be able to make a living. And having that versatility, to be able to track several different characters and step in for any one of them at a moment’s notice, is a very valuable commodity on Broadway.”

Sultan of swing

At 33, Nick Cartell has already proven his value as a Broadway swing actor. The Valley Youth Theatre alumni, who started with the eminent regional theatre (Emma Stone and Jordin Sparks are fellow VYT alumni) in eighth grade, honed his acting chops on all the requisite stages around in Phoenix—Greasepaint Youth Theatre, Stagebrush Theatre, Phoenix Theatre—before graduating from ASU’s School of Theatre and Film and eventually taking a performing job at Tokyo Disneyland, where he coincidentally met his wife-to-be, Christine.

After three years on the other side of the globe, Cartell felt confident to tackle the Big Apple. But the first jobs he found were the ones most aspiring actors shun: working as a swing.

“The people you run into who say they don’t want to be a swing are usually people who’ve been a swing before,” he says, with a laugh. “Because it’s a lot of work.”

Essentially, a swing is a performer whose job is to know every single role, or “track,” in a show and to be prepared to fill in for anyone on the spot. An understudy, by contrast, may play a minor role in a show but typically shadows only one lead player at a time. The pay for a swing can often be greater than that for an understudy or sometimes even a principal, but the trick of being able to retain every character’s lines, actions and stage directions can be mind-boggling, even for the most accomplished actor. (“I can’t even wrap my brain around it,” says Cheyenne Jackson in “The Standbys.”)

“There are certain people who simply can’t do it,” Cartell admits. “You have to be a very organized person, and also somebody who can think analytically and compartmentalize all the different tracks you might have to do.” Cartell’s organizational skills came in handy during his Broadway debut this past year as a swing for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where he was required to step in for not only Jesus but also Judas and assorted other apostles.

“I’d always have notecards for every single character I understudied in the pockets of each character’s costume,” he says. “That way I could always reference quickly what my traffic pattern was for certain scenes, so I always knew where I had to go.”

Fortunately, Cartell never slipped a notecard into the wrong pocket, although he often had fears his Jesus could start spouting his betrayer’s words.

“At the end of the Last Supper scene, there is a confrontation between Judas and Jesus where they pretty much are singing alternating lines—Jesus sings one line, then Judas, then Jesus, and so on,” he says. “And my biggest fear was that I would end up singing the wrong lines. It never happened—thank goodness!”

The biggest downside to being a great swing is that casting directors can decide to keep you in that role permanently. “You can get pigeonholed, because a swing is a commodity with a very unique skill set,” Cartell says. “But for me, it shows I have a good range, and I also have two Broadway credits now on my resume.” (His work on “Jesus Christ Superstar” was immediately followed by an ensemble role in “Scandalous.”)

“That said,” he adds, laughing, “I don’t know if I would ever like to do swing work again!”

New ogre in town

In November 2009, nearly a year after he originated the part on Broadway, Brian d’Arcy James decided to step down from playing the role of Shrek. Ben Crawford received the exciting news that he’d be taking over the lead, the role he’d been serving as the standby for, just a day before it was announced in the press.

“That was kind of a surreal moment,” he recalls. “It’s kind of like you’ve been borrowing someone’s car for a long time, and then finally they just say, ‘Here’s the keys—you can have it!’”

Making the transition from standby to star was a big ego-boost for Crawford, but it also freed him to at last put his own personal spin on the role, rather than always playing Shrek faithful to James’ presentation. “I had been doing Brian’s show,” he explains. “And now finally I could do Ben’s show.”

That’s the key juncture for a second-stringer suddenly thrust into the spotlight—and sometimes, a make-or-break moment in their rise from the backstage.

“Your job as an understudy is not to exactly imitate the principal, but you do try to stay faithful to their performance,” says Jamison Lingle, an actress currently playing in Arizona Theater Company’s presentation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” which runs at the Herberger Theater through Jan. 20. In the show, Lingle plays the character Jane Fairfax but also understudies the title role, stepping in for star Anneliese van der Pol if needed.

“Certainly there are certain gestures that Anneliese does that I have to do if I step in, because they cue the music or lighting to the movements she’s been doing. You’re like a second string quarterback,” says the admitted sports nut. “If the quarterback can’t go in, you have to know all of the plays to take the rest of the team there.”

“Trying to imitate always just seems false and forced,” adds actress and director Sarah Shahinian, whose musical “Respect: A Musical Journey of Women” comes to the Herberger Feb. 13. “You essentially have to pay homage to the original actor’s performance while putting your own spin on it. The biggest challenge is having to give up control over moments where you don’t necessarily agree with the choices, but have to do them anyway.”

Nevertheless, even when you’re “wearing someone else’s clothes,” as Shahinian describes stepping in as an understudy, “when you get to the big moment, its just you alone on a bare stage. You’re not at the mercy of someone else’s blocking or your own nerves at missing a cue or throwing somebody else off their rhythm. It’s just you. It might be totally selfish, but it’s also totally fulfilling and rewarding and naked and terrifying and awesome at the same time.”

In the end, Crawford’s run as Shrek lasted less than two months, at which point the Broadway show closed and the production took to the road as a national touring musical. Ironically, although Crawford had trained for the lead role for 11 months as a standby and played it for two, the part of Shrek in the touring company was given not to him but to the actor hired as his own standby, Eric Petersen.

“That was a little weird,” says Crawford, who’s since returned to regional theater and is now rehearsing for his return role on Broadway in the stage adaptation of Tim Burton’s “Big Fish.” Still, he harbors no hard feelings for Petersen, whose wife recently gave birth to their first child.

“I’m happy for Eric,” he says. “It’s just business. Behind the scenes, we’re like a big family. We all have each other’s back.”

Nick Cartell agrees, and says that although audiences groan when an understudy takes the stage in place of the headliner, backstage, the cast always cheers them on as a hero for ensuring that the show goes on.

“We’ve all been in those audiences where that little piece of paper falls out of the playbill and everybody groans, because that means an understudy is taking the place of the star,” he says. “But now that I’ve been an understudy, I’m always excited to see what that person’s gonna do.”

His advice? “Any time you see that little slip fall out of the playbill, remember it’s not always a bad thing. Give the understudies a chance. Because we’re working just as hard as the stars, if not harder, to win you over.” – end —